WHAT DOES A WRITER DO? Well, someone named Dave Johnson keeps sending me emails telling me about employers in my area who are looking for people like me, and it got me thinking about what I do, particularly after the most recent job offerings included graphic artist, an SEO content and marketing manager, administrative assistant in media and housekeeping supervisor. Well, yeah, Dave, I am all of those things. In fact, I need to be, as does anyone who wants to successfully answer the call of how to become a writer, particularly one who works at home (thus, the housekeeping expertise, of course).
But Dave, I’ve got bad news. I’m unsubscribing to whatever got you to contact me. While for weeks now our time together provided me delight at the weird world that brought you to my inbox and the ways in which I am defined, this week you went too far with the suggestion that I could go into solar panel installation. Dave, I think you misunderstand me and, after all, my primary job as a writer is to be understood.
Identify Your Areas of Expertise
The bare hack minimum of being a writer requires clear communication. I know, I know. Dave got the idea that I could sell solar panels. Obviously this is my fault. Maybe somewhere online I’ve listed that the Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun” is my favorite song.
Anyway, the adage you’ve undoubtedly heard and read most, as well as the advice most given to writers, is the “Write What You Know.”
But I bet you’d like to know what that means. Let me help you with this one, since understanding this will instantly transform your writing. To write what you know means to know your territory, map it out and to write from one single area of expertise at a time.
Like me, you have many areas of expertise. I am a woman, a mother, a daughter, a sister and a wife. I live with a dog. I have friends. I garden. I feed the birds in winter. I am a writer. I serve as a member of my university’s board of trustees. With each of these comes some insight, or knowledge, some area of expertise.
For instance, I am always the one who takes the dog to the vet at the end of life. I know that I’ve never learned anything in parenting by being right, but only when I’ve been wrong, as well as that a child’s imaginary friends are not a threat to anyone but those who lack imagination. See how this goes? After recently escorting a beloved friend to the end of his long life, I learned that grief is a process that must be passed through slowly or else you are destined to stay in it forever. These are things I know for sure, and I’ve written from each of those areas of expertise.
Write what you truly know – instead of what you merely did. Memoir requires it. It requires writing about not what you did, but what you did with it. What do you know about grief, or dogs, living with kids, baking, what gardening can do for a person or why men really do need to have male friends on whom to test their material?
What do you know about women and their friendships, or what happens when we lose any of our personal freedoms? Can you provide me with some insight into what lifelong, perhaps generational, ripples emanate from living with a parent who is a drunk?
Write what you know.
All Writers Need Good Writing Advice
Getting good advice is harder than it seems. Want to take an online writing class? Take one with someone who has published well in the mass market in your genre. Want to read a wonderful take on the writing life? Read this by Lorrie Moore, one of the greatest living writers of fiction, and laugh right from the opening lines, “First, try to be something, anything else.” She’s kidding, of course. Kind of. Don’t know Lorrie Moore’s work? Start with her story, “People Like That Are The Only People Here,” first published in The New Yorker, and you will be forever changed.
Want to learn in a group or workshop setting? Beware of classes that are entitled, “You Are a Writer Now!” These will not teach you how to become a writer, merely a self-promoter. In fact, take no classes from anyone who uses exclamation points. It’s good writing advice, too, since those damn things are way too often a substitute for what you simply do not yet know how to say.
One of the wonders of the online life is how much good writing advice exists. But to find it you have to use what is known as “news literacy,” meaning the ability to discern a good source from a a merely biased, or inaccurate one. This is the skill you employ when you read through the news sources listed on your friends’ Facebook pages. You know that some sources are better than others. That is news literacy. Put a similar skill in action when searching for online writing advice. My rule of thumb is to read the bio of the person giving it. Is she well-published? Is he earning his life as a writer, and not merely as a coach? Be careful, be prudent. Be literate with our sources.
How To Become a Writer? Read Above Your Head
I recently published a list of 25 books that have taught me something, complete with that they taught me. Have a look. It is not a required reading list, but rather one from which to pick and choose after you identify what you most need to know. Can I add to it? Extensively. Did I leave off Elena Ferrante’s four Neopolitan novels that recently showed me how to jump seamlessly back and forth in time better than any book has ever done? I did. Why? I forgot, so I just added them here.
Learn to Explain Yourself
Explain yourself. Here’s a hard one. When people – and by people, I mean your pesky relatives – ask you why you do what you do, have an answer by your side. Think of that answer as your best friend, as someone who will stick up for you every time.
What to say to people who want to know why you write? In my experience, this question was always posed in front of a family crowd and always comes off like the skewering it is – why don’t you have a real job, Marion? – that is, until I got my reply solidly in place.
I have to credit my daughter here, who was probably four when I developed my reply. She was in preschool when she learned the lesson of the bully. The loudest, as well as biggest, boy in the class was verbally belittling everyone. She did not know what to say, and from somewhere in the ether it came to me to advise her simply, “Honey, you need your very own ‘No.’” And then I pretty much forgot all about it through dinner and bath time until later that night, walking by her room, I overhead her small voice get bigger as she practiced the many tones of her response. “No.” “Noooo.” “No, no, no. ” “No?” They came through her bedroom door as the first step in my long journey to the reassurance that she is alright in the world.
And she, in turn, inspired me to work on my own response to that difficult in-law. The next Thanksgiving, when the inevitable question arose, when asked yet again what exactly I do for a living, I replied, “I have a fully funded curiosity.” And that, as we say, was that.
So explain yourself. And make sure you feel it to your bones when you say what you say. Do not let anyone undermine the confidence you feel once you determine that you, too, have something to say.
Have Something To Say
Think about this. How much better would the world be if people thought before they spoke? Most of us fumble our ways through the “You knows,” and “Yeah, right”s only to say little to one another about how we really feel. Learning how to become a writer requires working on your communication skills. If all else fails, remember me and Dave, above, and his notion that I should install solar panels and you’ll get right to work on this, I know you will.
How do you really feel? Use the words “beautiful,” and “wonderful,” and “lovely” only in your vomit draft, that messy first draft in which you just slap down everything you know. After that, implore yourself to inform the reader of what, exactly, happened here. Instead of writing that something was “beautiful,” show us what witnessing beauty does to you – how it changes or informs you; what is does to your soul.
When you feel anything deeply, ask yourself: What was that transaction I just had? What was that experience? What is this about?
What happened to you when the guy selling you your child’s first pair of school shoes recognized that you were putting on your sunglasses in the middle of the store to hide the fact that you were quietly weeping? What happened when, in this age of not being allowed to touch one another or say anything real to one another, that he merely patted you lightly, twice, on the back of your hand and made a little eye contact? What was that you felt hurtle though your body? Compassion? Humanity? The human response to recognizing what another person feels? Write it down. Don’t just get in the car and turn on the radio and forget all about it.
Write With Intent
Give up all writing prompts, exercises and morning pages.
I know, I know. You hate this one. I don’t know why, when the only thing standing between you and learning to write with intent are those time-frittering exercises that teach you how to return a ball only when it is hit right to your sweet spot. To learn how to become a writer you have to get out of your sweet spot and write the hell out of something, as we say in my family.
Writing with intent means studying the form you want to write, mastering that form, writing that form and publishing in that form. Mastering how to become a writer in any genre requires this.
Want to write a radio essay? Study the form. An op-ed? Ditto. A personal essay, a book-length memoir? I promise you, they, whomever “they” are in each case, are not going to change the form for you. So study it, and write to it and submit it. But first, master it.
I’ve got lots of other lists about how you can become a writer and what to do to succeed, my favorite of which is a recap of everything I learned in one particular year of writing, that includes:
- Play against the expectations of the piece
- Never defer when you can consider
- Bring original thought to household moments
- Explore annotation versus inheritance versus original thought
- Look out your front door
- Change the phrase from “my memoir” to “memoir”
- Get in over your head
- Forget the sequel
Want to know more about those? Come read the piece.
And after that? Why not take a class with me? I’d love to have you in one – or all four – of the live, online classes I teach. My classes range from one 90-minute session to once a month Master Classes in which I teach you to write a book-length memoir. Have a look.